Can you name a female composer other than Hildegard of Bingen? I bet most of us can't. I'm fairly knowledgeable about contemporary classical, and I struggle to get to ten (Nadia and Lili Boulanger, Saariaho, Imogen Holst (daughter of Gustav, still overlooked), Maconchy, Beamish, Bingham, Nicola LeFanu and Judith Weir. Why? Partly because I'm shockingly ill-informed of course, but also because classical music is one of the last bastions of patriarchal privilege. The 'High' Arts are where the men rule. They get the training, they get the jobs, they make the contacts and they get the critical attention. It's OK for women to perform – essential, given we've given up castrating boys thanks to the 'elf and safety mob as the Mail would no doubt put it – but there seems to be a structural resistance to women as creators of anything other than babies. There are female artists from the pre-feminist era, but relatively few because women weren't thought capable of philosophical, creative or abstract thought, barring them from the production, circulation and criticism of art. The music world is like the medical world: just as there are plenty of female nurses and junior doctors but almost no surgeons, there are lots of women filling the orchestral desks, few leaders, almost no conductors and very few regularly-performed composers.
A composer's sex shouldn't matter, but it does. Who knows how many great works have gone unperformed – or uncomposed – because a woman has been deterred from writing, or from learning to write, music? (And all this applies to non-white composers too). Classical music is split between the defenders of Culture who tend to be crusty reactionaries and hip young gunslingers eager to demonstrate the form's variety and openness to contemporary society. What brings them together is their white maleness. The 'new' composers are just as likely to be earnest young men playing with samplers as the traditionalists' heroes too which is really disappointing though as I say, it's structural. None of the composers, conductors, orchestra managers or whoever would admit to being sexist, but they do operate a boys' club. Why aren't women signing up for composition classes, or winning commissions, getting on the concert bills, or getting the various other hands up along the way? I refuse to accept the claim that they're somehow not good enough - there are plenty of mediocre men who get their work played (yes I'm looking at you, Terry Riley, Ravel, all the Strausses, Fauré, de Falla, Gorecki, Respighi
So here are some clips from some great female composers I like, starting with Judith Weir who has just been appointed Master (or Mistress, it's unclear yet) of the Queen's Musick. I know it's a silly title bound in to an embarrassing and outdated patronage system, but at least somebody has noticed that there are great composers with genitals on the inside. Enjoy.
Some Judith Weir (she writes operas too but I'm not that keen on those)
Some Nicola LeFanu, whom I really like:
Some solid Elizabeth Maconchy (mother of Nicola LeFanu - demonstrating that good role models and contacts help nurture another generation):
*Apologies. I couldn't resist that gag.